I arrived in France with Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth (a library book), which I read with great pleasure. Pullman is such a good writer. Before the volumes of The Book of Dust, his new trilogy, started coming out, I hadn’t read him in many years, but each time I’ve picked up one of these new books, set in a beloved world, I’ve felt like I’m in such good hands. I remember being twelve or so and finishing His Dark Materials and simply being in awe. I was convinced I would never write something as great.
This isn’t supposed to be a post about The Secret Commonwealth, though. Since exhausting my own reading material, I’ve been raiding Isabelle’s shelves, and I’ve been on a short story collection reading spree.
Difficult Loves by Italo Calvino
This collection contains eleven short stories, each entitled “The aventure of an X,” where X is a soldier, a crook, a bather, etc. These were translated by William Weaver (whom I read in my translation workshop at Swarthmore), and apparently there were more of them in Italian! All of these adventures are love stories, in a way (sometimes a horrifying way), but I really liked many of them. Calvino writes in what could be painful detail about the minutiae of ordinary life, but he’s such a skillful writer that it’s enjoyable. In that way, he reminds me of José Saramago. Slightly ridiculous predicaments become suspenseful, and throwaway moments of everyday life become moving. “The adventure of a photographer” has thought-provoking remarks about the effects the desire to document one’s life has on actually living it.
This particular book also contained two novellas, Smog, also translated by William Weaver, and A Plunge into Real Estate, translated by D.S. Carne-Ross. I liked these much less than the short stories. They were rather depressing, and no one was a particularly sympathetic character. There were some darkly humorous aspects to the stories, I guess (construction never ends), but that was about all I took from them.
Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone by Sequoia Nagamatsu
Inside this seafoam green book (the cover art is by Eric Fan, of the Fan brothers), there was a matching promotional bookmark, announcing an event at Magers & Quinn, that I think I picked up for Isabelle ages ago. It turns out Sequoia Nagamatsu went to Grinnell (!) and currently teaches at St. Olaf (!). As the bookmark says, these are stories inspired by Japanese folklore and pop culture. Some of them were of a rather novel (to me) brand of weird, and many of them dealt with a couple’s complicated relationship, sometimes with a child in the picture. My favorites were “The Inn of the Dead’s Orientation for Being a Japanese Ghost,” which was funny and featured a great voice, and “The Passage of Time in the Abyss,” which had a connection to the previous story but was very different in tone. I found it rather beautiful.
In the Forest of Forgetting by Theodora Goss
I had previously read some stories of Theodora Goss’s, and I knew of her novels about “the daughters of literature’s mad scientists,” which intrigued me. I’d also appreciated the references to academia in some of her work, since characters in grad school are relevant to my interests. This book, collecting stories published in Realms of Fantasy, Polyphony, Alchemy, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere, as well as two new stories, was wonderful. One of the stories, “The Rapid Advance of Sorrow,” originally published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, I had read before, but I no longer know where.
I really like Goss’s style, which strikes me as somehow traditional and old-fashioned in that the writing is lush and lyrical (isn’t beautiful language out-of-fashion in some quarters?), not experimental (for the most part). It feels like straightforward storytelling done very well, so that it’s extremely compelling. I feel like I’m unfairly casting her as unoriginal in some way because she does do interesting things with the boundaries between reality and fantasy. But I’m trying to describe something about her writing here. It’s not cerebral or too demanding of the reader (not that there’s anything wrong with being or not being those things); it revels in beauty and human emotion. And even as her stories feel traditional, they also feel fresh.
I was intrigued by Miss Emily Gray and her eponymous story because I seemed to remember a Miss Emily Gray in Goss’s story in The Starlit Wood. I checked; I was right. Then as I kept reading In the Forest of Forgetting, I came upon this character again in “Conrad,” and then once more in “Lessons with Miss Gray.” I liked how this immortal witch (?) kept making appearances through Goss’s body of work. I wondered about the recurrence of (different) characters named István and Eleanor (never terribly sympathetic, the Eleanors).
My two favorite stories–and they might be my favorites because they’re related–were “The Wings of Meister Wilhelm” and “Lessons with Miss Gray.” The former was especially lovely, and in the latter I was happy to meet certain characters again and learn more about their lives. I also found the point of view in “Lessons with Miss Gray” quite interesting: the story is narrated in the first person plural, that is, “we,” but there is no “I”. Initially I thought I’d find out which girl was the individual narrator of the story, but there isn’t one: all the girls are referred to individually in the third person, but the narrator is still “we.” I liked this device because it gave a sense of a collective character, a sum of the four central girls.
That’s all for now. I’ve just barely started Yoon Ha Lee’s Conservation of Shadows.